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03 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 3, 2002.

For Postal Service, Another Level of Anthrax Damages

Rejecting Worker's Claim Leaves Opening for Class Action

By Marilyn W. Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer

While saying it is "deeply troubled" by the tragic consequences of last year's fatal anthrax attacks, the U.S. Postal Service has rejected a damage claim filed by an injured Brentwood Road postal center employee and left the door open for a lawsuit against the agency.

The employee said the Postal Service's action is in keeping with a pattern of indifference that he and other injured postal workers have encountered since last year, when they were exposed to lethal doses of anthrax spores while working in various USPS facilities.

But a Nov. 1 letter from the Postal Service to Leroy "Rich" Richmond (case 14), a survivor of inhalation anthrax, said that the agency is barred by law from compensating him beyond the workmen's compensation payments that he has been drawing since October, 2001.

The decision allows Richmond, who had sought $100 million in damages from the Postal Service, to proceed with a legal action that he says will attempt to unravel a series of government decisions that left postal workers exposed to anthrax. Two Brentwood workers died after handling letters packed with anthrax spores bound for Capitol Hill (cases 15 and 16), and dozens more postal employees have filed complaints alleging physical or psychological damages from the attacks.

The employees, most of them black, say they were subjected to racially disparate medical treatment by federal health agencies and required to work in an unsafe environment several days after federal officials became aware that anthrax spores could have contaminated Brentwood and another major postal distribution center in Hamilton, N.J.

Through their unions and various victims' organizations, they have been pressing for attention from Congress, where two resolutions providing compensation for postal anthrax victims and survivors were introduced earlier this year, but were stalled in committee.

Richmond, 58, of Stafford, Va., has been one of the most vocal anthrax survivors, speaking earlier this year to the Congressional Black Caucus and to a convention of the American Postal Workers Union. He recently established a nonprofit relief fund to raise money for anthrax victims.

In the Nov. 1 letter obtained by The Washington Post, USPS offered Richmond the agency's "sincere best wishes" for a full recovery but said it would not compensate him beyond the workmen's compensation payments. USPS attorney Conny Davinroy Beatty told Richmond he has up to six months to appeal or to file suit in the federal courts.

"At the outset, we wish to express our deepest concern for the well-being of Mr. Richmond and his family and to extend our sincere best wishes for his full recovery," the letter said.

In filing the complaint, Richmond said he was hoping for even a nominal settlement that would acknowledge USPS's role in leaving postal workers in harm's way as contaminated letters passed through the mail system. Instead, he said, "they've treated me as if I have leprosy."

Since leaving his job as an Express Mail worker in October 2001 for an extended hospital stay and recovery, Richmond has received about two-thirds of his monthly $2,360 salary under the workmen's compensation program. He is still under treatment for depression and panic attacks and has suffered significant short-term memory loss that prevents his return to work, said his attorney, Gregory Lattimer.

The Postal Service said that federal employment compensation laws limit what it can pay victims of workplace injuries. The payments Richmond has received "provide his exclusive remedy from the U.S. Postal Service," the letter said.

Federal agencies have claims pending from numerous other postal workers at facilities along the East Coast who say they suffered damages from the anthrax attacks. Attorney Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, an advocacy group, said he is handling 100 such claims filed by Brentwood workers who, if rejected, are considering a class-action lawsuit against the government.

Worker complaints have mounted as USPS proceeds with elaborate plans to decontaminate Brentwood and Hamilton and bring the facilities back into operation. Since the attacks, employees at both major mail-processing centers have been deployed to temporary assignments at other facilities. They have complained through their unions that they do not trust USPS to restore a safe working environment.

Anthrax is a disease caused by touching or inhaling B. anthracis, a virulent bacteria that forms spores that can live in the environment for decades. The material spread through the Brentwood and Hamilton plants during the routine processing of letters addressed to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Receipt of the Daschle letter on Oct. 15 in the Hart Senate Office Building touched off a panic on Capitol Hill and led federal health officials to recommend widespread distribution of antibiotics to House and Senate employees. They took a more cautious tack in dealing with postal workers, insisting that anthrax spores could not escape from a sealed letter and that workers need not fear exposure.

Richmond was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax on Oct.19, 2001. Officials later determined that he contracted the disease while he was cleaning up behind a high-speed sorting machine that had processed the Daschle letter. A mechanic cleaning the equipment blasted air into the machine, spraying spores throughout the building.

Richmond's diagnosis led federal health officials to recommend antibiotic treatment for all Brentwood workers and to shut down the facility.

Postal officials have said that they consulted throughout the crisis with doctors from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and relied on their expert advice in deciding whether facilities should be closed and at what point workers should be treated.